Uncovering Oneida County’s Hidden Past
December 9th 2011 · 0 Comments
UTICA PHOENIX NEWS
On Thursday, December 1st, the Sherwood Bohlert Center on the Utica College campus was transported back in time. No, it wasn’t time travel, or even a documentary on any of our country’s many historical events, but rather something much simpler and identifiable—the first presentation of the Oneida County Black History Archive, chronicling the culture and past of the area’s African-American community.
And to For The Good, Inc., the agency which has spearheaded the Archive Project, the event was a great success.
Billed as a Reception for Elders, few elders were actually able to attend but Utica College’s Black student body and many faculty and staff found their way to the conference center to observe, admire and learn about the many hidden treasures on display.
Part of the excitement, and the difficulty in amassing this awesome collection of materials, has been tracking down artifacts, as well as people, to corroborate Utica’s African-American past.
“The [Oneida County Black History Archive] is a compilation and collection of artifacts, oral histories, completed questionnaires, written histories, biographies, photographs, maps, census figures, videotaped histories, and objects relating to or part of the Black history of Oneida County–in particular the cities of Utica and Rome, New York from the 1900’s to the present,” said Cassandra Harris-Lockwood, President and CEO of For The Good, Inc.
“We are particularly pleased that so many students found their way to attend. It is particularly important that these young people see that the world didn’t start when they were born. There were generations of people who suffered and sacrificed in order for them to have the opportunities that they have today.”
Mrs. Jean Baird Davis, an elder who represents one of the oldest families in the county, has been a member of the working committee of the Archive was present at the event. Her family, Harris-Lockwood pointed out, is descended from African-American slaves who, once freed in 1827, married Native Americans from the Haudenosaunee or Iroqouis Nation.
“Jean Davis has been an incredible asset in establishing the framework of the Archive. There is a great immediacy to this work. The window is closing on our ability to gather the stories of the earliest members of the Black community. Memories fade and people pass on so we are moved to make as much progress, hear as many stories and collect as much information as we can to gather an clear understanding of what it was like in the early portion of the 20th century,” said Harris-Lockwood.
Robbie Dancy, another committee member, brought her mother to the reception, Mrs. Rachel Hamlett, who was with her husband the late George Hamlett, owner of now closed Club George on Liberty Street. The Hamlett’s were among a handful of Black business owners in Utica dating back to when much of the area was segregated. Mrs. Hamlett spoke to the gathering mentioning that one of the differences between now and then was that, “the Busy Corner was really busy. I mean busy!”
The event was co-sponsored by the Black Student Union, represented by Shannel Finney and representatives of the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity Kenneth Agyapong and Keron Alleyene. Utica College Archive Intern, Tiffany Williams representative of the Student Senate, was instrumental in organizing the event.
Utica College President Todd Hutton’s gave remarks to the gathering. Hutton referenced to the college’s humble beginnings at its present location and that Utica College is in process of establishing campuses in other locations around the world.
Hutton indicated that wherever the college expands to it will never be forgotten where the college started. “Our roots are here in Utica, in this location. This campus is our priority. It is our home.”
Hutton stressed the college’s connectedness to the area and that, “The importance these documents is their relevance to the undisclosed history of the area as it relates to the existing community. What was happening here in Utica’s Black community reflects what was happening all around our country.
“This collection should be a source of pride for all Uticans and it is important to recognize those who were here before us, their struggles, their sacrifices and their accomplishments. These artifacts, photographs and documents have far reaching implications to our mutually combined histories and our understanding of each other.”
Harris-Lockwood added, “One of the students remarked to me that viewing the collection gave her, “closure and a sense of comfort” in light of much social and racial unrest the college is experiencing this semester. I hope that the kids take in the dignity and breadth of the social construct that preceded what they see before them today. There is sense of distortion in much of the Black community today. The fact that these kids are in college in a nation that once prevented Blacks from even learning to read and write is a statement in and of itself.
“Utica was once very segregated. Blacks couldn’t socialize with Whites. Couldn’t stay in hotels. Even being on Genesee Street was frowned upon. Black folks had to stay in their place. There were Black Codes up here before they were down South because Blacks were freed here earlier. There was the Colored Picnic at Sylvan Beach when one day out of the year Blacks from Syracuse, Utica and Rome would gather.
“We want to chronicle all of this and it will take hard work and funding to accomplish it. We’d like to have digital files and on-line access for it as well. Anyone who is interested in assisting in this work is asked to send a donation to For The Good to make it happen.”
By Mark Ziobro